With Thursday’s shake-up of his Cabinet done and dusted, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has delivered an apparent message to the public and political heavyweights in Nagatacho, the heart of Japan’s central government.
The message: no more scandals, no more unscrupulous politicians and only political veterans with proven track records, observers said.
“It’s a stable, heavyweight lineup,” a high-ranking government official close to Abe said Wednesday when asked about his new Cabinet.
Indeed, the Abe administration can no longer afford to risk giving more than a handful of slots to first-timers.
In the reshuffle, Abe tapped just six rookie ministers despite a waiting list of more than 60 Liberal Democratic Party members hoping for a prestigious post in the Cabinet.
Hit by a spate of scandals, including one involving alleged government favoritism toward school operator Kake Gakuen, the Abe Cabinet’s support rate — a vital indicator of the arguably populist prime minister’s political clout — has plummeted in recent weeks, falling to a record low of around 30 percent in media polls.
Rather than acceding to the wishes of dozens of frustrated junior LDP members eager for a post, observers said the new Cabinet’s lineup has signaled that Abe is making stability a top priority.
The prime minister has “chosen veteran politicians who can manage their jobs,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, professor of political science at International University of Health and Welfare in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture.
Kawakami pointed out that even some of the first-time ministers, including agricultural minister Ken Saito and environment minister Masaharu Nakagawa, are well-versed in their respective policy areas.
Saito once served as the head of the LDP’s agricultural policy panel and Nakagawa was the top bureaucrat at the Environment Ministry from 2002 to 2003.
“I would give a rating of 75 out of 100 points for the Cabinet lineup,” Kawakami said. “If Abe had chosen members like these when he reshuffled the Cabinet last time (in August last year), the support rate would not have fallen.”
But Kawakami doesn’t believe the reshuffle will fuel a quick rise in the Cabinet’s support rate since the new lineup doesn’t include popular, fresh politicians.
Abe’s basic strategy now appears to be make sure the new Cabinet members avoid any further gaffes or scandals, and to later use a raft of economic policy measures to boost his government’s popularity, he said.
Abe’s second term as LDP president expires in September next year and the question of whether he can regain lost support among voters by then will from here on out be a focus of attention in Nagatacho.
Kawakami pointed out that none of the opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, the largest opposition force, have won over skeptical voters, meaning no legitimate threat to replace the LDP currently exists.
“I don’t think Mr. Abe has given up the his hopes of re-election” as LDP president yet, Kawakami said.
High-ranking officials close to Abe, meanwhile, said they still believe his government has not committed any critical blunders in the policy arena, and in the economic realm in particular.
The recent spate of scandals and gaffes mainly focus on the reputations of individual ministers, not the substance of policy measures being pushed by the government, the officials said.
“Have we made any big mistakes in policy matters? I don’t think so,” one of Abe’s aides said recently.
“There’s no quick fix for boosting the approval rate,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We just need to seriously work hard and steadily make achievements.”
However, it may also be true that voters’ once-enthusiastic support for Abe’s economic policies, dubbed “Abenomics,” has been on the wane in recent months.
Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda, appointed by Abe in April 2013, once vocally pledged to bust long-lingering deflation by achieving a 2 percent inflation target within just two years via an unprecedented program of ultraloose monetary easing.
But more than four years later, Kuroda has yet to see through his pledge to reinvigorate the economy by reaching the inflation target. On July 20, the BOJ again pushed back the timing of the 2-percent target — the sixth time — to around fiscal 2019.
Accordingly, Abe has toned down attempts to sell voters on these economic policies. Instead, the prime minister has recently shifted his policy focus to labor, education and population issues.
In the Cabinet reshuffle, he created a new ministerial position “in charge of human resources development,” that is reportedly tasked with figuring out how to make higher education free while also promoting education among adults.
But such structural reforms won’t give the economy a quick boost, and results — if successful — will trickle in over the medium-to-long term. During a meeting with new LDP executives Thursday, the prime minister said that his government will put a top priority on economic issues, rather than his long-held ambition of revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura said.
Still, Abe has retained the deadline he set for the ruling party to draw up a constitutional revision draft, which he has said he wants submitted to an upcoming extraordinary Diet session expected to start in September.
Political observers say that Abe’s ultimate goal as a politician is to revise the postwar, U.S.-drafted Constitution, and he is promoting economic policies to achieve political capital for that goal.
Thus the next test for Abe’s dwindling clout is likely to be whether he can quickly form a consensus among LDP members and draw up a constitutional revision draft.
Lower House by-elections in the Aomori No. 4 and Ehime No. 3 districts, both scheduled for October, are also likely to become a touchstone for Abe’s new Cabinet, observers say.
Meanwhile, Iwao Osaka, an associate professor of political communications at Tokyo’s Komazawa University, said that Abe had probably tried use the reshuffle to refashion his Cabinet’s public image from that of a right-leaning, hard-line administration to one that appears softer and somewhat liberal.
“Members like (Defense Minister Itsunori) Onodera, (internal affairs minister Seiko) Noda and (Foreign Minister Taro) Kono will rather soften the image of the Cabinet,” Osaka said.
“I think the approval rate will rise, although it might take some time and I can’t say how much it will go up,” he added.
Abe, at the outset of a news conference Thursday, first deeply bowed to apologize for “having caused distrust” among the public through recent scandals, Osaka also noted.
This move underlined Abe’s determination to change the image of scandal-tainted Cabinet via the reshuffle, he said.
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